Sarajevo endured the longest military siege of a city in modern times from 1992 through 1995. The human suffering seems more distant with every passing year, but the scars from the Siege of Sarajevo run deep.
The Bosnian capital is filled with memorials to the dead and tributes to the courage of those who stayed alive under constant bombardment from the surrounding hills. Although much of the damage has been repaired and today’s residents welcome visitors, Sarajevo’s ghosts may haunt you long after your visit.
Sarajevo’s History of Harmony and Conflict
Sarajevo has a proud history as a crossroads where people of different cultures and religions could live together. As you wander the streets, you’ll see both historic mosques from Ottoman times and stately churches built under Austrian rule. The city showcased its inclusiveness to the world during the 1984 Winter Olympics. One relic of the games is the ruined bobsled track on Mount Trebevic, which became a snipers’ nest during the siege, and today can be reached by cable car for a fascinating hike. More details on how to plan your visit in this post.
The assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in 1914 set the stage for World War I. The royal couple was on a state visit to Sarajevo when they were shot by a Serb nationalist as their carriage passed by the Latin Bridge. The location is marked with an unpretentious monument that is easy to miss on a busy street corner. For more context go inside the National Library (Vijecnica) a few blocks down the street, which has a room depicting the Austrian royals in the last building they visited before being gunned down.
Bosnia’s National Library
The library’s architecture may look Moorish but it was actually built under Austrian rule. Today it serves as the city hall, but minders watch the entrance to make sure foreign visitors pay the admission fee to enter the soaring atrium and ceremonial rooms. It includes an audio guide that may or may not work with your phone. The Vijecnica was hit by enemy shells on August 25-26, 1992, and burned to the ground — along with millions of books. A sign near the entrance to the beautifully restored building urges visitors to “remember and warn.”
After World War II, Bosnia-Herzegovina was a member republic of Yugoslavia. Strongman Josip Broz Tito held the various nationalities together with the ideals of “brotherhood and unity,” but it started to fray at the edges after Tito’s death in 1980. By the time Slovenia declared its independence in 1991, the ethnic tensions erupted into all-out war as other nationalities resisted Serbia’s strong-arm attempts to dominate the region from Belgrade.
Recommended reading: If all of this seems like a bit too much history to digest on your vacation, there’s an easy and fun way to get informed. Tito’s Lost Children is a three-part novel that follows a fictional band of young adults through the Balkan Wars in the 1990s. It’s based on solid research by a PhD and will keep you turning the pages as a fictional daughter of Marshall Tito interacts with the real people and events, including the sieges of Dubrovnik and Sarajevo.
In fact, I visited Sarajevo when I accompanied the author on a research trip. (Disclosure: Author Andrew Anzur Clement is my son.) And if you really want to wonk out on history, here’s a post listing some definitive works on the breakup of Yugoslavia. History buffs may also enjoy one of the many tours offered on Trip Advisor.
Bascarsija: the Old Town Market
Ground Zero for your Sarajevo visit is the fountain in the large square that is the door to the cultural and historic heart of the city. It’s a central meeting spot and good place to catch a bus or a tram or change money. You can spend hours wandering the narrow streets of wooden stalls, which seem old despite having been destroyed in the siege and rebuilt. Some kiosks once sold Balkan War memorabilia, like pens made out of artillery shells, but this is becoming rare.
You’ll see the remains of the ancient caravansarai among the stalls and restaurants. The merchants are nowhere near as pushy as you might encounter in Istanbul’s Grand Market. When I stopped to try on a cute pair of handmade slippers, the friendly Bosnian shopkeeper took the opportunity to strike up a lengthy conversation in English about his son, a college student in the United States. And, guys, if you’re feeling scruffy, pop into one of the neighborhood barber shops for a cheap but great haircut.
Ghosts of the Bosnia’s War Dead
A short but steep walk up the hill from the Bascarsija you’ll find one of many sprawling cemeteries to those killed in the siege of Sarajevo and the wider war, pictured at the top of this post. Fallen fighters of all ages line the path to a museum about the life of Alija Izetbegović, the Muslim activist who led Bosnia through the war to its independence. It’s also a chance to walk inside the ancient city wall that houses the museum in two of its towers. Admire the panoramic cityscape in the background as you walk back down the hill to catch the #6 tram at the Bascarsija.
Tram Ride on Snipers’ Alley
Sarajevo’s trams are a motley collection of castoffs from other countries and battered vehicles that survived the siege. Buy your ticket at a kiosk and then settle in for a ride along Sarajevo’s main street, now called Zmaj od Bosna (Dragon of Bosnia), but known during the siege as “Snipers’ Alley.”
You’ll have to look closely to find buildings that still bear shrapnel marks on their concrete facades. Imagine living in one of the apartment bloks that provided easy civilian targets for the shooters on the surrounding hills. A shiny new parliament building and towering skyscrapers have risen from the ashes of war.
Look into the faces of the passengers on the tram and ponder what it must have been like for those who survived the siege without running water or electricity, when people risked their lives to go out for a loaf of bread. Plan to return later to the city center’s covered marketplace where a shell landed on February 5, 1994, and wiped out 69 innocent shoppers, wounding more than 200. Some of the city’s bomb craters were filled in with red resin; these “roses of Sarajevo” in the sidewalks are starting to disappear as rebuilding efforts continue.
You’ll also pass the highly fortified American embassy and the bright yellow high-rise hotel, the former Holiday Inn made famous as the headquarters of the international news media during the siege.
Tunnel of Hope
At the end of the tram line, hail a taxi or take a really long walk to the Tunnel of Hope. A humble family home provided cover for a tunnel dug underneath the runway at the Sarajevo Airport. At times, this was a lifeline of relief supplies. It also provided a way in or out of the city at a time when crossing the open runway was practically a death sentence.
Only a small section of the tunnel is open for visitors. Crouch through the narrow passage and then check out the exhibits for more details of how Sarajevo’s residents got by with almost nothing during the siege.
Back in the city, cross the river to the Sarajevo Brewery, which was the only source of fresh water during most of the fighting. We saw a flower memorial on the street corner where a shell landed on civilians lining up to fill their canisters. The brewery museum was under renovation during my visit and there’s an upscale restaurant inside. You might prefer to down a few Sarajevsko beers when you decide to take a break and ponder a world in which a drink of water for your family could cost you your life.
Day Trips to Mostar and Republika Srpska
It’s possible to visit the town of Mostar in Herzegovina on a day trip from Sarajevo. We hopped on a public bus, but you can also book a tour on Trip Advisor. War damage was much more visible in Mostar, where former neighbors ended up shooting at each other from opposite banks of the Neretva River. The iconic bridge destroyed in the shelling has been rebuilt, but in the summer it can be mobbed with tour bus groups from cruise ships docking on the Croatian coast. Visiting in the winter, we had the bridge and the photo opportunities to ourselves.
For a look at the “other side” of the war, take a bus from East Sarajevo to the nearby town of Pale. This was the headquarters of the Republika Srpska during the war, with a present-day cultural center that served as the Serbs’ wartime TV outlet.
Today there is some voluntary segregation on the part of Bosnian Serbs, who may work in Sarajevo but live in the areas that were designated for majority Serbian control by the signing of the Dayton Accords in 1995, ending the fighting the following year. For more on the Serbian context of the war, plan a visit to Belgrade.
We didn’t have time for a day trip to Srebrenica, a town made infamous by ethnic cleansing in which thousands of Muslim men and boys were rounded up and killed. A moving galerija exhibit in Sarajevo was filled with photographs and videos of the atrocities and tributes to the victims.
Terry’s Travel Tips
When to visit Sarajevo: This European capital is lively all year round but fills up with tourists in the summer. We had a great time in January, even though we had to dodge rain, sleet and snow.
How to get there: If you’re driving from a nearby country, check AutoEurope to save money on car rental before you leave the US. Be aware that some rental companies have restrictions on driving into Bosnia. We took a flight on now-defunct Adria Airways from Ljubljana. You can also connect by air from other European capitals.
Stranger Danger: We prefer to avoid airport taxis but rather than wait two hours for a bus, we took a chance in Sarajevo. Big mistake. The driver told us the main road to the city was jammed and he would “do us a favor” by driving through the hills. The result was a fare that was triple the return fare to the airport in a taxi arranged for us by our hotel. We didn’t have much choice but to pay the inflated price, after hearing the driver’s own bitter war story during the ride.
Changing Money: The Bosnian Convertible Mark, pegged to the Euro, is the local currency. There are numerous exchanges that will take your US dollars or euros. You’ll need some local spending cash for the many places that don’t take credit cards, although euros may be eagerly accepted. Change only what you will need because the currency is hard to convert back to euros or dollars once you leave Bosnia.
Where to Stay: There’s a wide choice of hotels in Sarajevo, with the grand Hotel Central being the top of the line. We preferred one of the more atmospheric B&Bs on the edge of the old town, Pansion Stari Grad. We loved the folksy decorations and the included breakfast buffet as well as the helpful, English-speaking front desk. The room had all the basics for a bargain price.
Food and Fun: You don’t have to spend a lot to eat well in Sarajevo, as long as you love the local meat-based cuisine. The comfort food is čevapi, small grilled sausages with a bread pocket and different toppings like kajmak cheese-butter or peppery orange-colored ajar. The majority of the population is Muslim, so many of the popular and cheap places don’t serve alcohol. The more full-service restaurants may have Sarajevsko beer and regional wine.
Our favorite spot was Inat Kuca, which beckoned me with its warm and welcoming lights across the river from the National Library. Inside, we learned the story of the house. The owner was an old man who refused to move from the spot where the library now sits, so he struck a deal with the Austrians to move his home to its present location.
The “House of Spite” is filled with nooks and crannies of memorabilia and the service is friendly. It was a bit more expensive than other traditional Bosnian food places, but we enjoyed the experience so much we went back twice. Vegetarians will have to get by with a cheese or spinach pastry pie (called burek in Slovenia and pite here) and my favorite, šopska salad.
When you need a break from cevap or if you’re vegetarian, walk out of the old town into the Austrian-era main shopping street and look down an alleyway for the delightful Klopa. Creative cooks in an open kitchen are whipping up tasty dishes with local ingredients, including some that are vegetarian and vegan friendly. We also found some fairly authentic Italian restaurants in the same area.
You’ll have a great time in Sarajevo, which once again eagerly welcomes visitors despite — or because of — having emerged from such dark and complicated recent history. Bosnians may be conflicted about whether to move on from the war or make tourism out of it. However, as an enlightened traveler, you can help spread the peace message of “never again.”
Want more stories about authentic travel and history in Centra and Eastern Europe? Planning a trip to the Balkans? Like @strangersinthelivingroom on Facebook, and sign up for the occasional email when there is a new post here on the blog. You can follow Terry Anzur on Instagram,Twitter and Pinterest. I’m in the top 1% of Trip Advisor, and you can read all of my reviews at @strangersblog on the Trip Advisor feed. Thanks for clicking on the Trip Advisor links in this post to book your hotel; you’ll support my blog at no additional cost to you. Opinions expressed in this post are my own.